Analysis: How a battle for supremacy in the Pacific can be fought without war

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ON the question of how the evolving relationship between the United States and China will influence the international order, there are few individuals whose observations receive equal attention on both sides of the Pacific.

Henry Kissinger is one; Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, is another. In profiling Lee for Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, Kissinger observed: “There is no better strategic thinker.”

Seeing the 21st century as a “contest for supremacy in the Pacific” between the US and China, Lee hopes that the two countries can fashion a viable power-sharing arrangement. Clearly, he says, Chinese power is growing, but he does not see the Americans retreating from Asia. In his view, “the best possible outcome is a new understanding that when they cannot co-operate, they will co-exist and allow countries in the Pacific to grow and thrive”.

In Lee’s judgment, China’s leadership will try to avoid a military confrontation with the US – at least for the next several decades. The Chinese recognise that only when they have “overtaken the US in technology can they envisage confronting the US militarily”. Furthermore, he observes, China’s “great advantage is not in military influence but in … economic influence”.

Lee predicts China will be the top importer and exporter of all east Asian countries within two decades. He notes it is “sucking the south-east Asian countries into its economic system because of its vast market and purchasing power. Japan and South Korea will inevitably be sucked in as well”. Lee is certain China’s leaders want to displace the US as the leading Asia-Pacific power: “How could they not aspire to be number one?” In the 35 years since China embarked on its market reforms, it has risen more rapidly along more dimensions of power than any other country in history. This progress has spurred a “reawakened sense of destiny”.

Lee worries less about the current generation of China’s leaders than he does about the next. The former have experienced “the Great Leap Forward, starvation, near collision with the Russians, the Cultural Revolution gone mad”. China’s young people, however, “have lived only during a period of peace and growth”.

In Lee’s view, China will eventually face a fateful decision: whether to seek to be an Asia-Pacific “hegemon”. He concludes that “peace and security in Asia-Pacific will turn on whether China emerges as a xenophobic, chauvinistic force, hostile to the West, because it tried to slow its development”, or “educated and involved in the ways of the world, more cosmopolitan and outward-looking.”

Lee offers wise counsel for statesmen seeking to avoid a catastrophic war in which there would be no winner.

• Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre.